Might As Well Rewrite The Title As Well…
To understand my position on this debate, I must first tell you a story. When my middle son was in 5th grade, he was harassed mercilessly by several black students in his class. Among those, there was one in particular that would constantly bother him, poking him with a pencil in the back, pulling his hair and calling him things like beaner, spic, camel jockey, sand nigger and towel-head. I had spoken with the teacher on many occasions and, while sympathetic, he was overrun by his classroom and, after taking up the matter with the school’s principal at the time, he found that he was alone in dealing with the problem.
One day, I received a call from the school saying that I was to pick up my son from school because he was being suspended for two weeks. Why? Because my son, in retaliation to the constant harassment, both verbal and physical, had finally had enough, turned around and hit the boy and called him a nigger. Oddly enough, the physicality of the altercation was swept aside as a negligible offense, but the racial slur was what was treated as the major transgression. I arrived at the school and met with the principal, who was a demurely petite black woman. She must have had a degree in psychology because the first thing she did was move a table that was in front of me out of the way so, “that there wouldn’t be anything standing between us.” Knowing that my wife was coming up, I thought that this was a foolish idea, as that table would at least buy the principal a few seconds for escape. As it turns out, I was right.
In speaking with the principal before my wife arrived, I brought up the fact that my son had been harassed by several children in the classroom and ran down the list of racial slurs that had been lobbed at him and that I had entreated the school to intercede to no avail. She stated that since he was not of that specific ethnicity, neither Arabic nor Mexican, then the racial slurs did not apply to him. She then made an allusion to the fact that he probably picked up his racism from me, since I was white, which is, in of itself, a prejudicial remark…and an incorrect assumption at that.
Now, look up at my picture. Now back here. I am a white male. My wife, however, happens to be female (which is a good quality in a mother) and also happens to be black. In all honesty, she’s a Haitian/Cuban/Native American-American, but that just sounds confusing and stupid. So, that being the case, all of our children are multiracial, which makes this incident as interesting as it is convoluted. I brought up to the principal the fact that the school had a zero tolerance policy for racism, yet they had allowed my son to be called all sorts of names of a racist nature. She repeated her stance that since he was not of those ethnic origins, the racist epithets did not apply. So, by this logic, since the children were racist as well as ignorant of someone’s nationality, it made their slurs acceptable. I went on to say that I had heard children in the hallway call each other nigger on innumerable occasions, to which she explained that, in the African-American culture, that was a term of greeting and endearment. Well, what if, for the sake of argument, the black half of my son used the word, trying to be endearing, while the white half was appalled at the racist transaction? Would that make it acceptable? Shortly thereafter, my wife arrived and the whole conversation devolved rather quickly, especially when she called the principal a nigger and all the children involved “little nigglets.” As I predicted, the principal should have kept that table in front of her.
I bring this up, not as a means to air my disgruntlement with the school system (although there is a cathartic quality to it), but as an example of how complicated the nuances of this argument are. On the one hand, we have black entertainers using the word ad nauseum, especially in rap lyrics, so much so that, if there weren’t so many words that rhymed with “nigger,” the rap genre would have died a quick death shortly after Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s first album. Walking along the street or standing in a store, I am constantly accosted by the dreaded “N” word, usually strung together with other expletives, with a complete disregard as to who is within earshot. It’s become a game, much like the one played by woman who wears exceptionally revealing clothes, just daring any male to look at them so they can unleash a hate filled tirade against the “sexist pigs.” It becomes a trap as to who can legitimately use The Word That Shall Remain Nameless, and woe to you if you use it and are not licensed to do so.
As with any other word, it is the intent behind the word and not the word itself that carries the weight. I can watch Richard Pryor’s Live On The Sunset Strip and never have a derogatory thought about the word nigger, even though it’s used roughly a thousand times during the show. If I watch Mississippi Burning and hear some white redneck use the word, you can feel the hatred drip off of each syllable. He could be calling the guy a “maraschino cherry”, and the sense of malice would be the same. By the same token, any word, regardless of how innocuous or funny that it may sound (such as peckerwood, which just cracks me up), should be treated equally as a pejorative term and not be relegated as having a lesser impact. I have seen innumerable black comedians, musicians, actors, etcetera, rail against the racism that blacks must endure, and then launch into bits denigrating other races without any thought of hypocrisy crossing their minds. You cannot claim a specific sensitivity to a word, then be insensitive about the language that flows from your own mouth.
The argument against removing the word nigger from Mark Twain’s works is simple: don’t. It reflects the mores of that time period, regardless of whether it is right or wrong. It shows how people were viewed and treated, and not just black people, but Native Americans and different classes of people as well. If you green light sanitizing works of literature, how soon will it be before we rewrite The Dairy of Anne Frank to depict the young girl taunting the Nazi’s à la Macaulay Culkin in Home Alone? Using the same logic that NewSouth Publishing Company is using, the book should be changed so that it will make it easier for teachers to discuss the book without having to deal with the horrific nature of the holocaust. We need to change Steinbeck’s Of Mice And Men while we’re at it to depict handicapable people in a better light. Those poems of Paul Laurence Dunbar will have to be rewritten, because some of the dialect smacks of ignorance. After we’re done with that, we’ll be able to tackle that violently racist and sexist book, The Bible…
I am not downplaying the use of the word nigger. In it’s truest form, the word embodies the hatred and detestation of one race for another. It unfairly depicts a whole race of people under an inapplicable blanket definition and, to a large degree, holds them to it against their will. That’s one of the important reasons to keep the word alive in it’s original context in Huckleberry Finn, as a benchmark for what the word applied to a people of a certain era and what the word symbolizes now. A word, however, is a word and, even if you sanitize it and give it a more palatable appearance, unless you are willing to change the behavior that allows this hatred and the insufferable intent behind the word, this cleansing is all for naught. By way of example, George Carlin used to do a bit about the term “shell shocked”, which turned into “battle fatigue” and eventually ended up as “post traumatic stress disorder”. Through all its permutations, the actual devastating trauma and its cause remained the same, but the terms were more pleasant for people to deal with, allowing people to ignore the tragic nature of what the words entailed.
Even though Huckleberry Finn is a work of fiction, it is still a window into a historical era. To shut this window and draw the blinds is the surest way to cloud our vision and allow us to forget things that, while uncomfortable or upsetting, are important to remember so that we do not forget, as a people, where we have come from and the atrocities that we, as a people, have endured. It gives us a point with which we can juxtapose the past with the present so as to give us a clearer line of sight to where we need to be. To tamper with literary works in the name of appeasement or comfort is yet just another form of revisionist history, allowing for a Pollyanna perspective that will surely allow us to forget past transgressions…and eventually to repeat them.